Bringing the environment to the forefront of engineering | Massachusetts Institute of Technology News



In a recent podcast interview with MIT President Sally Kornbluth, Associate Professor Desiree Plata talked about her childhood joys wandering through the backyards and strip malls of her grandmother’s hometown of Gray, Maine. Plata noticed a disturbing pattern during his wanderings.

“I learned about all the diseases when I was 7 or 8 years old,” Plata recalls. “It seemed like every family had someone with some kind of neurological disease or cancer.”

Driving home one night with his mother, Plata developed his first environmental hypothesis from the backseat. “I said to her mother, ‘I think there’s something in the water or the air that these people live in.’”

This conversation happened in the late 1980s. It wasn’t until she was a little older that Plata realized her intuition was right. The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that the waste treatment facility contaminated the area’s drinking water while it processed more than 1 million gallons of waste between 1965 and 1978.

“there was new york times There was an article about it, but it was buried in the Sunday paper, so a lot of people in Maine didn’t know about it,” Plata said.

What struck Plata most was that Gray was a close-knit community, and the owners of the waste treatment facility were friends with everyone. Eventually, some of the owner’s children became ill.

“People don’t intentionally poison their neighbors,” Plata said. “Much industrial pollution happens by accident or because engineers don’t know much about it. As environmental scientists and engineers, we encourage industrial engineers of all kinds to develop systems and Part of my job is to help them design processes.”

This insight led Plata to come to MIT, first as a doctoral student, then as a visiting professor, and now as a newly tenured associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Plata’s recent work is a little more complex than his early backseat musings. In fact, her efforts go far beyond her research, encompassing her student mentoring, entrepreneurship, coalition building, industry-academia-government coordination, and more. But her commitment to it can be traced back to her childhood insight that environmental optimization needs to be a more concrete and important part of everyone’s thinking.

“People think of sustainability as something vague that they can’t control,” Plata says. “But the reality is that there is a set of rigorous principles that you can use, and each of those has metrics and metrics that you can measure against. MIT is a very innovative place. If we can incorporate our goals into our designs, we hope the world can join in as well.”


Plata first encountered environmental research in high school, but it wasn’t until she attended Union University and worked in a lab that she realized it was what she was meant to do for the rest of her life.

After graduating from Union, Plata decided to “take the plunge” and enroll in a joint doctoral program between MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) without earning a master’s degree.

“Talk about drinking water from a firehose,” Plata says. “Everyone you bump into knows something that can help you solve the very difficult problem you’re working on.”

Plata started a program to study oil spills, and a paper she co-authored helped pass legislation that changed the way oil is transported off the coast of Massachusetts. However, as my personal life progressed, I began to want to prevent environmental disasters in advance..

During her final year at Union, Plata’s aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease has been linked to one of the chemicals dumped in Gray, Maine. While Plata was at MIT, her aunt was receiving treatment at nearby Massachusetts General Hospital, so Plata worked in the lab at night, was by her aunt’s side throughout the day during treatment, and spent weekends with her. I was returning home.

“As I sampled the oil, I realized that what I was doing was not going to help women like her escape the disease,” Plata recalls.

In his third year of the MIT-WHOI program, Plata is focusing his research on how industrial emissions generated during the creation of materials known as carbon nanotubes affect how these valuable new materials are formed. I shifted my research to find out if it was possible to know. This research has led to dramatically more sustainable ways to produce the materials needed for important environmental applications themselves.

After earning his Ph.D., Plata served as a visiting professor at MIT for two years and then worked as a faculty member at Duke University and Yale University, where he researched green chemistry and green optimization. She returned to her MIT in 2018 as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Initiatives beyond academia

While at Yale, Plata founded Nth Cycle, a company that uses electrical current to extract critical minerals such as cobalt and nickel from lithium-ion batteries and other electronic waste. The company began commercial production last year.

Mr. Plata also works extensively with government and industry, serving on the Massachusetts commission that released a roadmap to decarbonize the state by 2050, and advising businesses both formally and informally. It is carried out. (She estimates she receives a call every two weeks from a new company working on sustainability issues.)

“There is no denying that industry has a huge impact on the environment,” says Plata. “Some people think that if the government waved a magic wand and put some regulations in place, we wouldn’t end up in this situation, but that’s not the case. There are technological challenges that need to be solved, and companies are the agents of change. It plays a very important role.”

Meanwhile, Plata’s research at MIT is increasingly focused on methane. Last year, she helped create the MIT Methane Network, which she oversees.

Plata’s research has explored ways to convert methane into less harmful carbon dioxide and other fuels in places such as dairy farms and coal-fired power plants. This summer, she took her team of students to a dairy farm to conduct a field test.

“If we could remove methane from coal mining from the atmosphere around the world, it would be the same as taking all internal combustion engine cars off the road, even considering the small amount of carbon dioxide we emit. It will be. [as the result of our process]” says Plata. “If he can solve the dairy problem, he’s like tripled the emissions of internal combustion engine cars. That’s a very impactful number.”

take action

When Plata was in fourth grade, her teacher had her students pick up trash around a nearby bay. She has been doing this exercise with other of her fourth graders ever since.

“When I ask them what they think they’ll find, they say, ‘Nothing.’ They say, ‘I didn’t see any trash on my way to school today,’ but when I asked them to look, they realized that their trip was… By the end, everyone has filled their bags and begins to realize how much fugitive waste there is. Start thinking about invisible chemical pollution,” says Plata.

One of Plata’s main research goals is to help people understand the importance of environmental standards and inspire them to take action.

“today, “We see people looking for silver bullet solutions to solve environmental problems,” Plata says. “That’s not how we got into this mess, and that’s not how we’re going to get out of it. The problem is really distributed, and what we really need is to shake up the system. It’s a series of small actions that lead to change.”

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